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The East-West Dialogue


And Cultural fusion
Indra Nath Choudhuri

Kabirs home is at the top


of a narrow, slippery track
An ants foot
Wont fit
So villain
Why load your bullock?

About two decades ago in1993 Samuel Philips Huntington in his article Clash of
Civilizations made an ominous forecast that in future the civilizations will dominate
global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.
In this clash the most prominent group is the Islamic fundamentalists connection that has
emerged to challenge Western interests, values and power and threatened global peace
and harmony. It is true that there are ample signs of cultural conflicts between the
traditional East and the West as well as among the three Abrahmaic traditions, namely
Judaism, Christianity and Islam and hence it has become all the more necessary to
respond with renowned efforts to counter the clash of civilizations with a dialogue among
civilizations. A central idea of Orientalism is that Western knowledge about the East is
not generated from facts or reality, but from preconceived archetypes that envision all
Easternsocieties as fundamentally similar to one another, and fundamentally dissimilar
to Westernsocieties. This discourse establishes the East as antithetical to the West.
Such Eastern knowledge is constructed with literary texts and historical records that often
are of limited understanding of the facts of life in the East. A true perception of the East
and also of the West by the East is the first prerequisite in our understanding of each
other.

While the very idea of a clash of civilizations is wrong, a civilization of clashes is todays
reality. That what makes dialogue among cultures and peoples an urgent matter of
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international politics and global ethics. Dialogue can be meaningful in a 1) spirit of


reciprocity; 2) mutual recognition and 3) solidarity. Dialogue has to be infused with 4)
cultural broadness. Dialogue is a form of hermeneutical quest for inter-civilizational
reflection on the modes of global existence.
One of the important aspects of dialogue is to know each other, each others culture and
also their creativity and meditative thought.
Dia in Greek means to shed light into things through the spoken word, logos in Greek. In
other words bringing forth that which is hidden, is the ground or foundation of all
cultures, all civilizations. (1) In order to enter into a meaningful dialogue aimed at better
understanding of the Eastern and the Western civilization, every individual has to be
prepared to exercise i) tolerance towards people who base their daily lives on values and
experiences other than our own. Let us remember the well known quote by Einstein that,
a person starts to live when he can live outside himself, and hence tolerance alone is
not enough. Equally important is the notion of ii) responsibility for other cultures as well
as for ones own culture. While tolerance means not to interfere with others ways of
living or thinking responsibility actually suggests responsiveness to the otherness of the
other. Besides tolerance and responsibility there is another term iii) ethics used by two
distinguished philosophers Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida to explain the self
and the other relationship. Levinas says that the foundation of ethics consists in the
obligation to respond to the other. In being for the other only the sense of responsibility
(goodness, mercy, and charity) calls forth. For Derrida, the foundation of ethics is
hospitality, the readiness and the inclination to welcome the other into ones home.

Levinass and Derridas theories of Hospitality and ethics hold out the possibility of an
acceptance of the other as different but of equal standing. This is a broad view of
particularism as evinced in the cosmopolitan concept of Diogenes of Sinope, (2) who
said, Asked where he came from, he answered: I am a citizen of the world but it does
not in any way prove ones identity as a member of a family (vasudhaiva kutumbukam).
India goes even a step further as said in the Upanishads that one who perceives all the
beings in his own self and own self in all the beings does not hate any one anymore. (3)
This notion of complete identity is not to be found in the West. This realization depends
upon ones deep understanding of the existence of the one Supreme Reality and that the
Self is identified with that Reality. This is Vedantic oneness.
The consequence of Advaitic Philosophy is that if you harm another being, man, woman,
animal or insect, you are harming yourself. i) pacifism and ii) humanitarianism are the
necessary corollaries of this very doctrine.
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The Taittiriya Upanishad explains that when one sees difference even to the smallest
degree, there arises fear in mind. With fear you cannot have a dialogue. So long as there
is another there is finitude, the condition of being finite which creates fear. When the
notion of difference is transcended by the vision of underlying unity there is fearlessness.
But in facing a position where the other is completely obliterated no dialogue is possible
in that kind of a state of transcendentalism.
Indias role, it is said, in the intellectual encounter has been passive. It looks at least
apparently true but it is not true. India believes that there is such a thing as higher
learning and this kind of learning, one learns best about others by learning about one self.
This kind of learning about others does not analyze, compare and judge all the time but it
accepts them as they are. This method gives a benign, a compassionate knowledge of
others. In fact in this kind of knowledge, there are no others. India has never tried to find
Europe, but discovered it when she was herself discovered and started responding to it
while being discovered, subdued and objectified by it. Otherwise also Hindus never
showed any curiosity or interest in others. Otherwise also there is complete lack of
interest among the Hindus, either silence or evasiveness towards other cultures. Hindus
were constantly beleaguered by the yavanas (Greeks) and mlechhas (Muslims and
Christians) but it survived the continuous and violent incursions of foreigners and
remained immune to them even if failed to resist their physical or political domination.
We all know about the legendry biography of Alexander, became well known in large
part of Asia but was completely disregarded by Hindu India.
We can know all that we need to know about the Hindus and their ancient customs from
the Greek and Chinese travelers or later from the chronicles of Muslim historians but
there is hardly any account available to us about what the Hindu natives thought of their
guests from abroad. Nor do we find any account of philosophical or religious debates
with Ulemas in traditional Hindu literature.
Buddhism, however, posed a challenge to Hinduism which was quite different from other
traditions both in its origins and its philosophical content.
It was both the other and at the same time not the other.
If Hindu scholars and seers felt compelled to engage in passionate intellectual discussions
within their Buddhist counterparts, it is precisely because, Buddhism while being the
other , at the same time shared with Hinduism some of the most fundamental concepts of
common reference; the questions of moksha i.e. liberation and nirvana of self and
nothingness.
No doubt India accepted sambad or dialogue as an effort towards understanding the
genuineness of the issues posed. The dialogue with others with a view to conquering one
and all absolutely does not fit in the thought frames of Indians. Debates creates suicidal
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ego. Only service to people alone can fill ones heart with love. More than that Hindus
believed in a meaningful factual and self analyzing dialogue atmanam viddhi. Though
external dialogues were practiced yet mostly among themselves not with others.
No man, however great his learning and scholarship, will be considered a philosopher in
the Indian culture unless he is free from egoism, greed and pettiness and has the positive
virtue of a noble disposition and hence scope for external dialogue was limited which
tend to make a man develop a fat ego.
The second profound reason for this lack of curiosity for the other is that the other was
never a source of reference necessary to define their own identity as it was for the
Europeans. The self was always accepted as self referential, the other was never a threat
to their identity, nor a source of confirmation of their uniqueness.
This was very different from the European notion of the other, an inalienable entity
external to one self, which were both a source of terror and an object of desire. Sartres
famous statement hell is the other, carries a strong echo of Hegel, who always defined
ones identity as identity against the other, either to be appropriated or to be destroyed.
By defining the identity of the self in this manner, however, a European finds himself
entrapped in his own contradiction. If he succeeds in completely, subjugating the other
the identity of his own self becomes dubious. He wants to become whole by destroying
the other but without the other, he becomes nothing.
Even in present time characterized by the globalization of culture there remains a big gap
in the Wests understanding of the East. Though globalization tends to go for one
homogenized culture by appropriation and co-option even then a fierce debate is
continuing for the last 30 years to speak in favour of particularism and exceptionalism.
Amartya Sen by quoting Tagore says that Tagores everlasting credit is that his great
cosmopolitan vision never sacrificed the richest possible sense of tradition. His actual
words are,
The main point of cosmopolitanism, which is taken to be world-citizenship claim,
need not militate against valuing elements in ones own tradition. It is particular cultural
traditions that can provide the bases for understanding and morally relating to others and
ultimately a vision of universality is developed.
Let me here, by endorsing the view mentioned just now reject a well entrenched view
about Tagore that his main contention was to bring a synthesis between the West and the
East for a true resurgence of India and a well meaning message of spirituality to the
West.
On the contrary his theory was (by borrowing from G.L.Mehta) that there is no other way
open to us in the East, but to go along with Europeanization and to go through it. Only
through this voyage into the foreign and strange can we win back of our own selfhood.
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Going through does not mean acceptance but understanding it. In Home and the World
Tagore further justifies this view:
I do not think that it is the spirit of India to reject anything, reject any race, and reject
any culture. The spirit of India has always proclaimed the ideal of unity.Now, when in
the present time of political unrest the children of the same great India cry for rejection of
the West I feel hurt We must discover the most profound unity the spiritual unity
between the different races.
We must go deeper down to the spirit of races , other human individuals, and realize
that his work is to bring man and find out the great bond of unity, which is to be found in
all human races.Man is not to fight with other human races , other human individuals
but he has to bring about reconciliation and peace and restore the bonds of friendship and
love.
But in the West one can still realize a persistent reluctance to accept that the West could
have borrowed anything of significance from the East, or to see the place of eastern
thought within the western tradition. One glaring example of this attitude is that the
European literary historiography uses the paradigm of a single dominant literary tradition.
Occasional debates about particular preferences of styles and periods do take place such
as T.S. Eliots preference for the metaphysical over the romantics. But at no stage it
allows the inclusion of a non-British writer in the British canon even when some very
good works were produced in the language of the British Isles outside.
On the other hand India believes in multiple parallel literary traditions, use of many
languages together and accepts the writers of the foreign origin as their own:
1) Here loka or folk or popular and shastra or classical are not two separate traditions
but two pillars of the same literary and cultural tradition, two pillars of the same
continuum.
2) Besides two versions of the same story of Shakuntala of two different traditions-
epical reality and dramatic imagination- existing together. Panini talking of two
discourses together, one by common people and other which is grammatically correct.
Similarly Bharata speaking of two types of theatre together, one is catering to public and
the other which is based on dramatic conventions.
3) Aswaghosha, a famous Sanskrit poet is of Greek ancestry. Sister Nivedita of Irish
nationality and Ibn Battuta of Arabic tradition are accepted as Indian writers.
4) Rajshekhar wrote plays in Maharashtri and Sanskrit.
Jaydeva of 12th Century used Bengali and Sanskrit to
write though his famous narrative poem Gita Govinda
is in Sanskrit. Hemchandra wrote in Gujrati and
Sanskrit and Prakrit. Namdev in Hindi and Punjabi.
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Tyagraj in Telegu in metre of Gujrati poetry. Tagore


in English, Abahatta and English.
All these indicate Indias amazing capacity to assimilate alien culture, code-mixing of
languages and intertwining different literary traditions. The acceptance of the Vedantic
oneness has always paved the way in obliterating the difference between swa and para,
self and the other. The popular is discussed in India as insider not as self or the other. The
vision of the one in and behind the many (Vivekananda) is the secret of Indias cultural
foundation of human unity. It is said in Bhagwad Gita (7.7) that God is the central thread
of Being like the thread that unites all pearls into a garland:
mai sarvamidam protam suttre mani gana eva
India built up a universal humanistic tradition on the bases of this vision from the time of
the Vedas. The notion of human unity (amritasya putrah; Veda), the importance of man
(na manushad srestrataram hi kinchit; Mahabharata) and the notion of universal
humanity; Tagore (Hey more chhitta punyatirtha jagore dhere ai mahamanaber sagar
teere). All these notions proclaim the unity of human beings in midst of their diversities.
But still one finds certain aberrations in the society like the caste system and hence one
may deduce that some kind of moral ideal is a precondition of all social life. There are
five principals which can tie up human beings of different cultures together and can be
used as the basis for dialogues; truth (satya), ethics (dharma), peace (shanti), love
(prema) and non-violence (ahimsa).
In the late 18th and 19th century because of our association with western knowledge and
the impact of 18th century enlightment (4) India along with its inner dialogue started an
external dialogue with the West. The four distinguished Indian individuals who took
active part in the dialogue with the West were: Raja Rammohan Roy, Swami
Vivekananda, Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi. There were others also but for
the sake of brevity only the above four Indians were selected, who were the trend setters
in the area of Indias dialogue with the West.

Raja Rammohjan Roy


Raja Rammohan Roys book, The precepts of Jesus, (1820) avoid any description of 4th
Gospel which contains prophecy, doctrines of atonement or the divinity of Christ. He was
described by Joshua Marshman as an intelligent heathen whose mind is as yet opposed
to the grand design of the saviours becoming incarnate.
In his debate Raja Rammohan Roy objected about the ways of missionaries, their abusive
language and support of the Government in their activities. Roy in his debate said that
truth and virtue do not belong to wealth and power and then spoke of biblical criticism by
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Unitarians and free thinkers and hit hard at the doctrine of Trinity (5) and said if miracles
are to be accepted then how can native miracles of great saints be rejected.
The dialogue got clouded by racial superiority. In fact it was more an encounter than a
dialogue.
Swami Vivekananda
Swami Vivekananda started a dialogue between spiritual East and materialistic West and
also between spirituality and science and at the same time redefined Hinduism in search
for a universal religion and to create a healthy synthesis. His words were, One day, the
Western and Eastern man shall combine to support each others strength, and supply each
others deficiency. By uniting the materialism of the West and the spiritualism of East I
believe much can be accomplished.
His message at the parliament of Religion of universality and tolerance of Hinduism
captivated his audience. Vivekananda was sure that Vedanta and non-duality, which were
at the heart of Indias religious tradition and would be the basis for a universal religion
and that would take mankind to a new fulfillment.
The Parliament of religion was not in fact to start a dialogue among people of different
religions but to prove the superiority of the Christian religion over other forms of faith
but the philosophic religion of Hinduism was able to maintain its position
notwithstanding. The Parliament helped on the tide of Vedanta which flooded the world
proclaimed that the Lord is every religion. He said, Buddhas and Christs are mere waves
in the infinite ocean of existence that I am or I do not want to Hinduize the world or to
Christianize it but I want to My-ize the world, thats all.
Rabindranath Tagore

With Tagore dialogue between the East and the West turned cultural. He believed in the
energy and discipline of the West and had a vision of West and East meeting in
cooperation and also caught in the contradiction of this vision. He elaborated his vision in
a Bengali essay Bangalir asha and nairashya well before his visit to England:
The European idea in which freedom predominates and the Indian idea in which
welfare predominates; the profound thought of the Eastern countries and the active
thought of the Western countries; European acquisitiveness and Indian conservatism; the
imagination of the Eastern countries and the practical intelligence of the West what a
full character will be formed from a synthesis between these two.(5)
Tagore was aware of a cultural chasm in western understanding of his own work and of
India in general. For Tagore East was spiritual and non-violent and west materialistic and
aggressive. Sylvain Levy thought that Tagore was criticizing the western perception of
East as some shadowy, threatening other with which the West is in sharp conflict and
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essentialzing East and West into two simple and contrastive categories. He wrote in 1923
to Tagore,
But you will answer me that (it is ) no matter , if millions of men have to live as slave, if
some hundreds can reach moksha, and here is the deep difference between West and
India.

Brahman India is built on an aristocracy, Buddhist India, which tried to build up a


democracy, has been defeated and annihilated.

And West is more and more democratic; we believe in the rights of Man, who ever be
the man But let us try come to a fair understanding of each other.
Tagores opinion was clear that first try to understand what is good in others and that
would help in regaining ones selfhood and hence in his lecture purba o paschim he
said,
At every turn - in her laws and customs, in her religions and social institutions India
today deceives and insults herself. Meeting of East and West on our soils will succeed
when there will be inner harmony between the two is achieved.
In Indian history, the meeting of the Muscleman and the Hindu produced Akbar, the
object of whose dream was the unification of hearts and ideals. And it is a wrong
perception that he discarded West because of its crash materialism. On the contrary he
believed in the energy and discipline of the West.
When Tagore said through Europeanization one will be able to discover ones self hood,
he was in fact, creating a space where one could talk to another tradition, feel it, touch it
and then realize ones power, own self. And so could end his essay East and West with
a rebuttal of the imperialist notions of incompatibility voiced by Rudyard Kipling that
It is true that they (East and West) are not showing any real sign of meeting. But the
reason is because the West has not sent out its humanity (which allows to develop inner
harmony) to meet the man in the East but only its machine. Therefore the poets line has
to be changed into something like this, Man is man, machine is machine and never the
twain shall wed.
It is to regain ones selfhood by a process of decolonization of the self, which no outside
agency but only ones own tradition could have set in motion, Tagore offered to us not
the choice of either materialism or spirituality, or either modernism or tradition, but the
choice of both versus the forced acceptance of one. However, Tagore was totally against
western imperialism and its resultant violence but at the same time he was for Indias all-
embracing age old vision of human unity. This is what he said in 1922 in Pune in a
lecture on Indian Renaissance,
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A man who is alone or one is meaningless, because there is no unity in one. The one
with many is truly one because in that one, one can see the unity and this unity gives the
message of truth.
This idea of unity is very vividly described in his dream about which he wrote to his son,
Rathindranath on 11th Oct. 1918,
I want to make Shantiniketan the connecting thread between India and the World. The
days of petty nationalism are numbered let the first step towards universal union occur
in the fields of Bolpur. I want to make that place somewhere beyond the limits of nation
and geography.
It was a dream and not turned into a reality.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi


Gandhi initiated a dialogue with the West on the relationship of spiritual life and public
activity. Ramain Jahanbegaloo says that in a globalized world where there is global
interdependence and the consciousness of the one world but also comparative interaction
of different world views and distinct communities highlighting the virtues of
particularism are bound to produce new cultural conflicts.
Closely linked to the process of globalization is the problem of interaction between
cultural or religious communities holding different views of world order. Tolerance and
cultural-broadmindedness and mutual understanding are the hallmarks of Gandhian view
of religion and politics and with the help of this perception the issue of dialogue between
the East and the West can be faced.
The major portion of Gandhis life was spent in dialogue between East and West,
between the East of his native India and the West of the colonizers. His dialogue was not
merely with words or ideas or theory as we generally all do, as we see mostly in interfaith
dialogues but his was a lived dialogue springing for his love for truth (satya) and non-
violence (ahimsa). He once said, In order to transfer others you have to first transform
yourself. The heart of Gandhis message is to first look within one self, change oneself
and when the world sees a different you, then it automatically change itself.
At a more fundamental level Gandhi speaking out of his own interpretation of Hinduism,
could not see nations or individual people as isolated entities, one of which might be
chosen by God among all others to play a special role in history. Therefore Gandhi rarely
spoke in terms of linear world history.
1. His goal for every culture (including his own) was the same as his goal for every
individual to find truth.
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2. For Gandhi himsa a selfish desire to control others behaviours inevitably


prevented us from direct immediate awareness of truth.
3. At a more philosophical level in Gandhis view every culture can and should learn
from others. Preservation of ones own culture does not mean contempt for that of
others, but require assimilation of the best that there may be in all the other cultures.
Such a dialogical attitude conducted at the deepest level and in a spirit of genuine
reciprocity and solidarity was not for Gandhi just a moral requirement, but also a political
necessity.
Gandhis conception of enlarged pluralism takes on the task of fostering togetherness
and solidarity among cultures and traditions in the interest of democratizing modernity
and bringing about a just global order.
His dialogical engagements proceeded from a ruthless internal interrogation of his own
tradition of thought and encouraged inter religious dialogue so that individuals could
see their faith in the critical reflections of another. Example of his cultural pluralism are
to be found in his inter- faith prayer meetings.
Gandis achievement lay in embracing an inclusivist vision and a philosophy devoid of
a polarization of us and them.
Gandhi was not without his sense of the other, but he had too much respect for persons
and cultures to render them into dangerous other. His understanding of religious plurality
and cultural diversity went hand in hand with reaction to a cultural conformity. As he
once said, I do not want my house to be walled in on sides and my windows to be stuffed.
I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I
refuse to be blown off my feet by any.
When Gandhi identifies ahimsa with love, as he does so often, he is actually underlying
the concept of empathy as a dialogical response to the presence of other. Empathy in
Gandhis terms means understand other with respect but critically. It is religious
pluralism as he said in Indian Opinion in 1907:
If the people of different religions grasp the real significance of their own religion
they will never hate the people of any religion other than their own.
Gandhian intercultural dialogue is an important step in being able to understand not only
other cultures together but also to find a common path towards the future.
Cultural Fusion

There is always the risk that in the name of cultural fusion any kind of assimilation and
absorption can become an American melting pot or in other words can turn cultures into
an amalgamation of diverse identities. Tagore never believed in a monolithic structure of
one culture or an alchemical unity of cultures. On the contrary he believed that the correct
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path is in the confluence of cultures and human unity for better understanding of human
beings so that an edifice of human unity could be established without devaluing any
culture. Tagores seminal statement in this respect is, Perfection of unity is not in
uniformity but in harmony.
Cultures and all historical religions are very closely interrelated with each other and in
cultural fusion religion has to play its dominant part. One should realize what actually
religion is.
All creative forms of religious life are moving towards an ideal of unity. This movement
towards universality transcends all historical boundaries and particularities of culture. It
is, therefore, non dogmatic and non humanistic. It is Tagores religious universalism
which is to establish a comprehensive link between the old religions of mankind. We do
not want a new religion but we need a new enlarged understanding of the old religions.
It is the view of all great thinkers of modern India including Tagore, Gandhi and even a
great Indian philosopher Dr S. Radhakrishnan. One is to be truly religious to serve
mankind. Therefore, Gandhi realized that the inter-faith dialogue is a necessary outcome
of the cultural border-crossing. It follows that India saw the Religion of the Spirit as the
ultimate faith of mankind. In the religion of the spirit a special place is offered to the two
concepts of universality and tolerance. It is a fact that the barriers of dogmatic religions
are sterilizing mens efforts to coordinate their forces to shape the future. The reply is
not the western approach to secularism but Indias approach to secularism which is love
for all religions, peaceful coexistence and fraternity which leads to fusion of our
understanding of culture, religion and thought. In any kind of cultural fusion co-existence
is the first step and fraternity is the goal. No theology is larger than reality. There is no
separation between the outer Man and the inner Man, because the realm of spirit is not
cut off from the realm of lifeThe two orders of reality, the transcendent and the
empirical, are closely related (Radhakrishnan). Tagores philosophy is also that of
defending the idea of a whole Man as a multidimensional being. Many of Tagores
observations on this matter are related to his understanding of the religious experience as
the experience of the Universal. All religions of the world have a universal spirit and that
such a spirit can become a vital element for bringing world peace through better
understanding of each others culture, religion and keeping the path open for dialogue. In
his address in 1923 Tagore said, I can hear, from over the seas, the cry for peace. We
must give them the message of our great forefathers: Peace is where the Good is; the
Good is where there is Unity.
Shantam, Shivam, Advaitam.
Unity is peace; for Unity is the Good.
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Tagore said, May the message of our Rishis reach every where and the message is,
There can be no blindness and sorrow, where all beings are known as oneself and the
Unity is realized.
Notes and References
1. According to Will Durant civilization is social order promoting cultural creation.
Four elements constitute it: i)
economic provision; ii) political organization; iii) moral
traditions and iv) the pursuit of knowledge and arts.
2. Diogenes the cynic was a Greek philosopher also known as Diogenes of Sinope
founder of Cynic philosophy in 412 or 404 BCE. He carried a lamp in the daytime,
claiming to be looking for an honest man.
3. Yastu sarvani bhutani atmaneyavanupashyati|
Sarvabhutashu chatmanam tatona vijugupsute, Ishopanishad.
4. What is enlightment? is the title of a December 1784 essay by Immanuel Kant
published in Berlin monthly edited by Gedike and Biester. Kant replied to the question
posed a year earlier by Reverend Zollner also an official in the Prussian Govt. Zollner
raised the question with reference to an essay written by Biester in which he proposed
that clergy should not be engaged any longer when marriages are conducted (April 1783).
In reply to this proposal Kant created the notion of enlightment
and what he said in the opening paragraph, much cited
definition of a lack of enlightment, as peoples inability to
think for themselves due to their lack of intellect, and also lack
of courage and proposed:
a) Church and State paternalism be abolished; b) People to give the freedom to use
their own intellect; c) Enlightment is mans emergence from his self incurred
immaturity; d) Motto of enlightment Dare to be wise; Man should be autonomous not
heteronymous (dependent) and f) Use of reasoning.
5. Trinity God as three divine persons staying as equal:
Father (God), Son (Jesus) and Holy Spirit (raised Jesus from
the dead)